Stephon Clark: He was still an unarmed man killed for breaking windows

‘We are outraged.’ Stephon Clark’s mother and family react to DA’s decision

Stephon Clark's family reacts on Saturday, March 2, 2019 to the Sacramento County district attorney's decision not to press charges against the officers who shot him in 2018.
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Stephon Clark's family reacts on Saturday, March 2, 2019 to the Sacramento County district attorney's decision not to press charges against the officers who shot him in 2018.

If your takeaway from Saturday was that Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert did only what was expected by clearing the city cops who killed an unarmed Stephon Clark almost a year ago, then you missed the larger travesty of justice that is playing out within a few city blocks in downtown Sacramento right now.

First Schubert held a press conference across from her G Street office, where her presentation was as much a closing argument against Clark as it was an exoneration of the cops who killed him.

Then a block away Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg offered his comments for the cameras at City Hall, delivering them with great empathy but little ability to affect law enforcement agencies that are the focus of civil unrest in Sacramento and beyond.

Only a few blocks away from where Steinberg spoke is the office of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is doing all he can to shield cops from public scrutiny and looking the other way when cops like Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones go rogue.

You can call all of this the three legs of a broken stool of criminal justice in California.


Mind you, all of these public officials – Schubert, Steinberg and Becerra – feared Sacramento would explode in violence after Schubert’s easily predictable decision on Saturday to clear the cops who killed Clark. All of them live and work here in the Sacramento region and, because they are politicians, they are worried that ensuing violence will be hung on them in some way by angry public.

Yet the broken stool of criminal justice in California is not fixed because the principal parties are all essentially in business with each other, or their jobs demand that they protect each other, or that they could pay political price if they take on each other.

How does this three-legged stool of injustice work?

First you have Schubert, whose office has reviewed more than 30 police shootings and never filed charges against a single officer. Some of these were deeply controversial police killings in the city limits where the cops were eventually fired by their department or forced out. Or they included deadly use of force employed by Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies that were called into question by law enforcement experts.

Then you have elected officials such as Steinberg, the Sacramento City Council, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and others who, as civilians, are in partnership with paramilitary police forces. They have no direct control over the cops they work with, or they tread gingerly around law enforcement partners who run major cop shops in the area. The pols have political and financial arrangements with top cops such as Jones and Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn.

So when I asked Steinberg if the cops who killed Clark should be fired, he took a pass. And then Steinberg said he would work to help toughen state law to hold more cops accountable. He was reminded by members of the media that Schubert relied on federal law to clear the cops who killed Clark.

Steinberg also admitted that he has no direct control over Hahn or the cops under Hahn.

And then you have Becerra, who – as my Sacramento Bee editorial board colleagues and I have noted – is Mr. Tough Guy when it comes to suing Donald Trump but is a lap dog for his law enforcement partners in California.

Becerra is flouting a new law that requires law enforcement agencies to release the records of officers linked to shootings.

Consider what just happened in the clearing of the cops who killed Clark.

In her own way, Schubert was masterful in a presentation that lasted a little more than an hour.

In the case of Stephon Clark, we’re talking about a man who was only holding a cell phone and whose worst transgression on the night of March 18, 2018, was breaking windows. For that, he ended up dead – shot seven times by two officers who chased him into his grandmother’s backyard.

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Having learned from past police controversies, this time Schubert acknowledged Clark’s death was a terrible outcome considering that a huge police presence – including a sheriff’s helicopter – converged on Clark for breaking windows. Schubert even apologized to Clark’s family. She said: “The death of Stephon Clark was a tragedy.”

Schubert did give lip service to wanting to improve “outcomes” in police confrontations. It sounded good except that in 2017, Mikel McIntyre, an African American man, was shot in the back several times by deputies. And when the former county Inspector General – former Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel – questioned McIntyre’s killing and made recommendations to improve outcomes of confrontations, Jones forced Braziel out of his job. And Schubert said nothing.

But Saturday, with her comments about the tragedy, she clearly was giving a nod to those of us horrified by Clark’s death. And that includes those of us who acknowledged the young man had led a troubled life but still was killed for breaking windows.

First, Schubert needed to explain to the community why cops would not be prosecuted for killing an unarmed man. The short answer was that she didn’t think a jury would convict them, and she may well be right. In other cities, cops have been caught on video doing horrible things and juries still had a hard time convicting them.

But how Schubert threaded the needle to justify her position was truly remarkable.

As my colleague Sam Stanton tweeted: “This truly is a closing argument from Schubert to a jury of citizens watching (the video) of this press conference.” In clearing the cops, Schubert was essentially prosecuting Clark for having a troubled life. She explained how he had been researching suicide. And how he had been accused of domestic violence in the days before his death.

By putting Clark’s state of mind out there, Schubert was telegraphing that he was not in his right mind. Instead of following police orders to show his hands, Schubert said that Clark walked 15 feet toward the cops.

Was this suicide by cop? She wouldn’t say when asked, but the implication was clear. In making this case, Schubert focused attention on Salena Mohamed Manni, Clark’s girlfriend and an alleged domestic violence victim.

Is anybody uncomfortable with that?

Yes, Clark had drugs in his system – a variety of drugs.

But the key elements that moved Schubert to decline prosecuting the cops require all of us to believe the word of cops who were investigating other cops.

Both of the cops who shot at Clark told police investigators that they saw Clark crouched before them in a “shooting position.” But Schubert had to acknowledge that this key “fact” could not be corroborated by the video of the Clark killing. It was too dark.

Even more curious was the phantom silent “flash” of light that one of the cops saw before opening fire. The cops thought they were being shot at, Schubert said. Here at The Bee, we’ve had the Clark video for almost a year, have never noticed this flash of light and no authorities have pointed it out. What was it, Schubert was asked? She didn’t know.

Oh, and what of the cops silencing their microphones after the whole Clark killing went down? Her office didn’t look into that. They also didn’t study the state of mind of the police officers who killed Clark. She studied Clark’s mind in the days before he died. But the cops who pulled their triggers? Did anyone check their cell phones? Their social media? Nope.

We know we can’t see the service records of these officers, because Becerra is guarding them despite state law. We know Steinberg can’t do much about cops he can’t control.

So what do we have? We have people angry and taking to the streets. And we have other folks who believed and appreciated Schubert’s presentation.

“Anne Marie Schubert made me so proud today,” said Donald Heller, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

“Anne Marie is an ethical public servant and didn’t bend to the hue and cry of misguided protestors, because her obligation and that of her office is to make charging decisions based on the evidence,” he continued.

Certainly many people feel as Heller does. But I’m not one of them and neither are many others. The three-legged stool of injustice doesn’t work for many in California. Heller said that Schubert only focused on the “facts.”

Well, key facts were all told from the police perspective.

To be proud of what transpired in Sacramento on Saturday, one has to accept that a man killed for breaking windows is just one of those things.

It’s not. It tragedy and a travesty of comfy co-conspirators who enforce the laws and make the rules.

Dale Kasler was detained while covering a Stephon Clark protest in East Sacramento on March 4, 2019. The protests come after the announcement that the two officers who shot the unarmed Clark would not be charged.

Follow more of our reporting on Shooting of Stephon Clark

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.